Josh Ritter: “The Animal Years”

It seems that every review of Josh Ritter’s music must first mention his lack of relation to the late actor John Ritter. Now, I guess, this review is no different. Well, back to the point, Idaho’s Josh Ritter gained much success in Ireland after his 2002 sophomore release, Golden Age of Radio. His fame in America has been steadily building, and is sure to take off since the April 11th release of his forth Album, The Animal Years. Brian Deck, producer for Modest Mouse and Iron and Wine, lent his hands to guide this album, Ritter’s first with V2 Records.

Josh Ritter’s music follows in the tradition of Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash, featuring heartfelt and poetic lyrics, with subtle yet powerful instrumental accompaniment, and commanding vocals. “Girl in the War” starts off The Animal Years with a soft finger-picked guitar and a biblical dialog between St. Peter and St. Paul, “Peter said to Paul you know all those words we wrote/ Are just the rules of the game and the rules are the first to go/ But now talking to God is Laurel begging Hardy for a gun/ I got a girl in the war man I wonder what it is we done.” “Instant classic” immediately comes to mind, and I do not use that term lightly.

“Thin Blue Flame” continues the theme of questioning the powers that be, “It’s a Hell of a Heaven we must go to when we die,” and the references to Laurel and Hardy, “Where even Laurel begs Hardy for vengeance please.” Lasting a near-epic nine minutes plus, “Thin Blue Flame” is a bleak vision of religious fervor, so strong that it leads to apocalyptic war, delivered as stream-of-consciousness. “Thin Blue Flame” primarily uses a simple two chord pattern to slowly build the tension and emotion to a powerful crescendo of imagery and passion.

This is one of those songs that you will find yourself humming or stuck in your head hours later. You will also find that to not be a bad thing at all, with lyrics such as, “The fruit trees of Eden and the gardens that seem/ To float like the smoke from a lithium dream/ Cedar trees growing in the cool of the squares/ The young women walking in the portals of prayer,” streaming through your mind to its steady melody.

“Monster Ballads” is a soft reflection on radio and such, “Ones and zeros bleeding mesa noise/ And when you’re empty there’s so much space for them/ You turn it off but then a still small voice/ Comes in blazing from some vast horizon,” highlighted by a delicate piano.

“Wolves” allows the drums to set a galloping pace for a rumination of past love and loss. The haunting and intimate “Idaho” is near-a cappella, save a gentle guitar in this lonesome song set in Ritter’s home state. “Lillian, Egypt” tells the tale of silent-film stardom for the one he loves, while the Dylan-esque “Good Man” keeps the mood lively and wistful.

The bittersweet “Best for the Best” is set in a depression era, with the losses and compromises of life associated with such, “Once I knew a girl in the hard hard times/ She made me a shirt out of fives and dimes/ Now she’s gone but when I wear it she crosses my mind/ And if the best is for the best then the best is unkind.” “In the Dark”, “One More Mouth” and “Here at the Right Time” round out this consistent and accessible album.

With The Animal Years, Josh Ritter delivers a great folk album, testing the boundaries of the genre throughout. It is easy to get lost in his music and the imagery of his lyrics. His use of historical and cultural allusions greatly influences a deep human feeling throughout this album. I highly recommend The Animal Years to any fan of Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, Gillian Welch, Leonard Cohen or even Bruce Springsteen, or of contemporary artists such as Bright Eyes, Ellis Paul, Neko Case, or Matt Nathanson.

Track Listing

  1. Girl in the War
  2. Wolves
  3. Monster Ballads
  4. Lillian, Egypt
  5. Idaho
  6. In the Dark
  7. One More Mouth
  8. Good Man
  9. Best for the Best
  10. Thin Blue Flame